Everything in physics is governed by equations, which can be solved to predict, for example, how grains of sand collide, how a tablecloth falls across a flat surface, or how water flows around obstacles. And as computing power becomes cheaper and more accessible to universities, the potential for research applications with large computers is skyrocketing.
Using math and heavily validated modeling to simulate how different types of bodies and surfaces interact, Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Dan Negrut and his students are building a software infrastructure that can be used to solve engineering problems of all types—providing a new, virtual laboratory for mechanical research.
With simulation, it’s possible to test cars before they’ve been built, for example, or to explore the dynamics of costly or dangerous experiments without the expense or delay of having to build or replace prototypes.
Negrut focuses on granular dynamics, such as sand or dirt particles that move and collide, flexible bodies that can change shape in response to pressure, and fluid flow in different settings.
In a project funded by the U.S. Army, for example, Negrut’s students look at ways to represent terrain as a deformable, flexible medium—more representative of mud or dirt than sand. Combined with how a vehicle tire (another deformable, flexible structure) behaves, they can create simulations of how off-road driving might feel in real-time. The Army hopes to use these simulations for driver-training programs.
Negrut’s work also has the potential for medical applications. Human blood can be treated as a series of cells (small, colliding bodies) moving through plasma (a fluid flow) in a blood vessel (a flexible body). Being able to model all three aspects will help researchers find new ways to deliver drugs on a molecule-by-molecule basis to different parts of the body. “The computer becomes a virtual microscope or telescope,” says Negrut. “In an ideal world, we would be able to simulate everything.”